One of the many new luxury flats developments replacing the now defunct art deco light industry on either side of the Edgware Road beyond Colindale (and isn’t everything?) – is described as ” A landmark development of 183 apartments, townhouses, restaurants and shops set in the heart of old Oriental City.” Their emphasis.
“Old Oriental City”. All real estate is tinged with fabulism – a Rumpelstiltskin like capacity to turn dross into spun gold. “Desirable neighbourhoods” are stretched imaginatively out across their scrag end hinterland, so that the cachet will rub off on increased prices. Ultimately, all of North London will be some far flung corner of Greater Hampstead. Some of Donald Trump’s capacity to lie on such a spectacular scale with such total self belief is rooted in the commercial necessities of real estate moguls to pass off dull realities as whatever they can get their marks to believe in.
As with Geography, the sense of being somewhere historic, being part of an older and – in this case – exotic – History has a similar drive. “Old Oriental City” is a phrase that conjures an imaginary world in which – for centuries – trading Junks laden with tea, silks and Ming vases sailed up the River Brent to a bustling outpost of the Middle Kingdom; inexplicably situated half way to Watford – from a more recent, humdrum, reality.
The “Oriental City” on that site was a shopping Mall, originally built as Yaohan Plaza in the early 1990s; so not exactly “old” in any historical sense. A speculative venture from a Japanese company looking for an outlet for excess capital, running on the momentum of the late eighties property boom – already crashed and miring Japan in stagnation ever since – Yaohan went bankrupt in 1997, and was bought out by the Malaysian company which renamed the Mall “Oriental City”.
It combined a very popular food court with almost empty shops that were forever closing down and being replaced. These started off very posh and expensive in the Yaohan days – Oxford fashions, marketing a Japanese notion of expensive English taste in a fairly down at heel English suburb, beautifully presented, highly priced and always empty – and moved rapidly down market to cheap and cheerful plastic tat, that sold better but couldn’t sustain the rent.
At the entrance -towering above stone lions that would not have looked out of place in an imperial palace in Beijing – was a gigantic silhouette of Sonic the hedgehog luring punters to subterranean pleasures of the Sega gaming centre; when arcades could still compete with consoles. Above the rattling and clanging darkness of this labyrinth of addictive psychic distraction was the Zen CX – Alexei Sayle’s favourite restaurant for a while – though, as it was an all you can eat, it could have been better labelled Zen XL. Finally going bust just before the 2008 crash and derelict for several years afterwards, now the site is mostly a Morrisons; though the Bang Bang Food Court and Loon Fung Supermarket have re-emerged from the wreckage as the vigorous and viable survivors demanded by commercial Darwinism.
An older connection with China is also fictional. The eighteenth century writer Oliver Goldsmith lived for a time at Hyde House – a farmhouse demolished in the 1920s to make way for a district hospital, demolished in turn to make room for a small cookie cutter housing estate. The building now called Hyde House is a Premier Inn on the other side of the Edgware Road opposite the care home built where the Red Lion pub used to be. All that is solid melts into air and all urban landscapes are palimpsests.
Goldsmith – who described himself at one point, tongue in cheek, as “the Confucius of Europe” wrote a series of essays in 1760-61 in an adopted Chinese persona. The citizen of the world; or Letters from a Chinese philosopher, residing in London, to his friends in the East. This allowed him to pose as having a perspective from a distinct “other” civilisation simultaneously “exotic” but worthy of respect for its longevity, cultivation and sophistication and, at the time, wealth and power. Different but equal.
The scores he was settling were all, of course, domestic, but the notion that a Chinese perspective might allow him – in some respects – to look down on Western society, is one that still comes as a jolt after two centuries of imperial dominance. It is a perspective that underlies a lot of the hostile treatment of China in the Western media today- since a recognition that the way China dealt with COVID19 was staggeringly more effective than that of the West – with domestic infections eliminated in two months and an economic recovery that will amount to 60% of total world growth next year – requires a barrage of venom to be thrown into people’s eyes to avoid them asking awkward questions of our increasingly clownish leaders.